Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Perspectives on Christian Nationalism | Righting America

by Terry Defoe 

Educated at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia (BA, Sociology, 1978), Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon Saskatchewan (M.Div., 1982), and the Open Learning University, Burnaby British Columbia (BA, Psychology, 2003). Defoe served as a chaplain at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. Terry has been interested in the science / faith dialog for more than 30 years. His intellectual journey has taken him from young earth creationism to an evolutionary perspective.​ Shortly after he retired, Terry published Evolving Certainties: Resolving Conflict at the Intersection of Faith and Science, which received endorsements from scientists affiliated with the BioLogos Association. Recent research shows that many young people consider the evangelical church to be out of touch with scientific reality. Enhancing scientific literacy among evangelicals is, in Defoe’s opinion, critically important, as is re-establishing trust between science and religion. 

Evangelical Leaders who have supported Donald Trump. Image via Salon.com.


We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, it’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes overlap. The four corners of deceit are Government, Academia, Science, and Media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it’s how they prosper. — Rush Limbaugh

U.S. evangelicalism is at a crossroads. Many American evangelicals favor Christian Nationalism, a form of theocracy in which the U.S. government would be based on a religious philosophy, rather than by a diverse collection of people from many religious (or secular) backgrounds. Much of evangelicalism in the U.S. has become thoroughly politicized and seriously divided. Trust is in short supply. Previously stable social and governmental institutions (the judiciary, for example) have been destabilized as trust has slowly eroded. A good portion of the evangelical church has allowed politics to dominate (and often obscure) faith issues. 

It wasn’t always this way. In the past, U.S. evangelicalism was a respected social institution. Evangelicals were people of the Bible – widely perceived as people of integrity. Its theological underpinnings can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. In the U.S., evangelicalism took root in the mid-18th century in the context of Pietism and Puritanism. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, evangelicals were strong advocates for reform, involved in movements such as temperance and the abolition of slavery. Evangelicals have traditionally been concerned with social ministries, with support for the poor, the marginalized and the immigrant. 

In the last half of the 20th century, evangelicals were confronted by massive social change: the sexual revolution, pornography, feminism, gay rights, and abortion.. And, in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled against school-led prayer. In response to these and other similar changes, the Moral Majority, brainchild of Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, was formed in the late 1970’s. Falwell understood the power of television which allowed him to bring his message — an amalgam of fundamentalist Christian faith and Republican politics — into the homes of millions of people each week. The Moral Majority brought many evangelicals into the Republican Party and introduced them to a politicized gospel.


In 1990, approximately 90% of the U.S. population identified as Christian. By 2010, only 20 years later, it had fallen to 63% — a 27-point drop in just 20 years. Significantly, the number of people who describe themselves as having “no religion” increased from 19 to 29% in the last decade. The change was greatest among Protestants. 

At a time when the church is declining – in numbers and influence – it seems odd that evangelicalism would turn people away from the church with its unhealthy sense of superiority and entitlement. But U.S. evangelicalism has been an active participant in, and has been an initiator of, some of the contentious issues polarizing the nation. Christian nationalism is one of those contentious issues. Evangelicalism has, to use the language of the book of Revelation, lost its first love. Its commitment to the Lord and to his church has turned lukewarm as the idol of politics has taken precedence for many. Preaching the gospel of Christ has been set aside by a good number of evangelicals, replaced by political maneuvering designed to make Christianity the state religion and Donald Trump its de facto leader. 


In November 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States. Eighty percent of evangelicals voted for Trump (four years later 84% of evangelicals voted for him). Trump’s 2017 inauguration speech set the tone for his presidency. The speech was dark and dystopian. He described American reality as “American Carnage.” The speech seemed to be directed only to his supporters. Almost immediately, some of his supporters began to say that Trump was sent by God (despite the fact that he managed only the thinnest veneer of religiosity). 

Trump never missed an opportunity to curry favor with evangelicals. His promises included restoring Christmas, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and overturning Roe v. Wade. He also vowed to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court with card-carrying evangelicals. 

Pastor Robert Jeffress, lead pastor of a Baptist congregation in Dallas, Texas, one of the largest Baptist congregations in the United States, said “God intervened in our election and put Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a great purpose.” Franklin Graham, son of legendary evangelist Billy Graham, turned out to be one of Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters. Graham said, “Never in my lifetime have we had a President of the United States willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like Donald Trump..” It is quite ironic that Franklin’s father had a radically different view:  “The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” 


King Cyrus was a Persian ruler who, according to the Bible (Ezra 1) liberated the Jews from Babylonian captivity. Similarly, some evangelicals saw Trump as a flawed vessel chosen by God to achieve specific purposes even though his personal life and behavior diverged significantly from traditional piety. Lance Wallnau, a business consultant and self-styled doctor, was among the first to make the Trump-Cyrus connection. He claimed that the Lord spoke to him during the election period, leading him to draw this comparison. The association with Cyrus allowed evangelicals to justify their support for Trump, despite his unconventional lifestyle and political controversies. Just as Cyrus played a crucial role in Jewish history, some believed that Trump could serve as a vehicle for advancing their priorities.


A theocracy is a political system where divine authority or religious leaders play a central role in governing the state. Christian nationalism has been a popular idea in parts of the evangelical church for a very long time. Many evangelicals would like the U.S. to be an explicitly Christian country, guided by Christian principles, with Christian leaders. Republicans are more than twice as likely as independents and three times as likely as Democrats to hold Christian nationalist views. Christian nationalism is a response by a subset of evangelicals to America’s growing racial and religious diversity. Many evangelicals, based on fears engendered by Fox News and the like, are convinced that Christian nationalism is a viable alternative for such a time as this.

Christian nationalists are typically in favor of restricting the immigration of non-Christian people to the U.S. They want government funding for private schools. Christian nationalism is an ideology of exclusion. Love of country has morphed into hostility to others – from community building to exclusion. It is opposed to policies of diversity, equity, and inclusion, while advocating a proprietary interpretation of scripture. Most of its devotees do not have a problem with Christianity being a qualification for political office, which we have already seen during Trump’s years in the White House. 

Christian nationalism is a serious threat to the church and to the nation.


Early in his presidency, Donald Trump criticized CNN for what he said was biased coverage. He often referred to the network as “fake news.” Trump sometimes refused to take questions from CNN reporters, and when he did, he would say things like, “That’s a nasty question,” or “You’re a nasty person.” He did that sort of thing during his presidency, and carried on with the same attitude after he left office. All of this appears to have been a deliberate strategy, the goal being to discourage his followers from accessing news from mainstream news sources, instead encouraging them to access outlets like Fox News, which went out of their way to present him in a positive light. This is straight out of the authoritarian playbook, where governments routinely make generous use of disinformation to control their message. And Fox News specializes in fomenting fears for political advantage. Its audience marinates in those fears hour after hour, day after day, week after week. 


In times of great duress, evangelicals are drawn to apocalyptic scriptures such as Daniel in the Old Testament or the Book of Revelation in the New. Fearful individuals gravitate towards authoritarian leaders. Too many individuals, and not just evangelicals by any means, are willing to let others do their thinking for them. Magical thinking, conspiracy theories, science denial, openness to authoritarianism all come together in Christian nationalism. 

Adding right-wing news to an uncritical population and further adding strong social pressures not to leave conservatism under any circumstances is a recipe for the kind of political reality we see in the U.S. currently. And social media is a gift to propagandists. It is currently the wild, wild west for attitude manipulators. Social media platforms have a great deal of influence over the news that many people receive every day. Social media supercharges the worst parts of political discourse. The use of inflammatory language and moral outrage increases the number of shares, likes and followers. Research has shown that content on social media that arouses strong emotions spreads further, faster and more broadly than other news. 

The most divisive posts are likely to garner the most attention. On social media people can say almost anything and spread all kinds of lies far and wide. A false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker than a true story. Two types of information that catches our attention, given the way we’re built psychologically, are both novel and negative threats. The truth may have a running start, but inaccuracies more often than not win the race. 


Conspiracies are essentially speculative explanations as to the causes of things, typically attributing them to covert plotting by malevolent parties. Conspiracies typically dispute the official narrative provided by authoritative sources, suggesting that powerful entities are covertly manipulating events for their own benefit. Conspiracy theories may provide a rationale for atypical behaviors such as refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic. During periods of crisis, conspiracies proliferate. Conspiracies are most effective when individuals refuse to fact check their claims. 

COVID-19 kicked the conspiracy ecosystem into high gear, with folks claiming that masks, vaccinations, and the like were part of a vast government conspiracy to persecute the church. During the pandemic, science denial became more than an academic, ivory tower concern. People were literally dying because they had chosen to listen to ideologues as opposed to scientific expertise. And the Trump White House briefings on the pandemic were cringeworthy, as scientific experts stood side by side with science deniers. 


In the last few years, the evangelical church has incurred a huge hit to its reputation. Evangelical wounds, unfortunately, are mostly self-inflicted. For many years, evangelicals condemned idolatry. That has changed, as increasing numbers of evangelicals worship at the altar of political expediency. During the Trump presidency, the U.S. had a live preview of what Christian nationalism looks like. Electing Trump as president exposed a sickness that needs to be healed in the nation and also in evangelicalism. 

Christian nationalism proposes the establishment of a religion-based kingdom. But when Pontius Pilate asked Jesus about his kingdom, Jesus left no doubt: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Recently, twenty-four thousand national church leaders signed a statement condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel (Burnett, 2022). Evangelicalism need not jettison its foundational principles but apply them in creative new ways. Mark Galli, senior editor of Christianity Today, an organization founded by Billy Graham, said this to fellow evangelicals

Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency.